Monday, August 11, 2008

Olympic Basketball
A message to all the "basketball liberals" of the world (note: not the same as political liberals, but there's a lot more overlap than they would care to admit): the US Olympic basketball team is not, in fact, selfish. It is not showoff-ish. It is not individualistic, or fundamentally unsound, or mean-spirited, or unable to work together as a team, or unable to shoot from the outside, or lacking in heart/size/skill/coaching.

That was 2004's team.

That's not to say this edition of Team USA is unbeatable- far from it. A number of the savvier sportswriters (i.e. the ones who have actually watched this team play) have noted a couple of weaknesses: free-throw shooting, half-court sets to get open looks from the 3, sustained defense, difficulty against the zone when Deron Williams isn't in, even a propensity for deferring too much.

Let's listen to that again: a propensity for deferring too much. That means Kobe is passing up shots he would have taken in the NBA (are you listening, basketball liberals? or busy burning David Stern's business plan and tape of Coach K's Mastercard commercial in effigy?), which, yes, given that he's the most potent offensive force currently playing on a court, is a bit of a problem. Occasionally. But are you even listening to me?

Let's talk about what this team can't do: play the Princeton offense. Slow the game down. Get good looks on the ouside consistently in a half-court set. Play from behind. Avoid sloppy, incredibly *sloppy* turnovers occasionally.

But what about what it can do? Never have to play from behind. Tenacious, hellacious, and selfless pressure defense (notice: not zone, not trapping...that's what you do when your team doesn't have the players). Turnover dominance. Near-perfect execution of fast breaks. Nailing open shots like it's nobody's business (getting open shots is the problem) Out-hustle and out-athleticize anybody in the game, except *maybe* Spain, on a down day. And occasionally, every once in a while, run a beat-four-guys-in-the-lane, thundering-dunk NBA-style iso play with LeBron, Kobe, Carmelo, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, or DWAYNE WADE, just to remind everyone that we can.

Oh, and let's talk about depth and team organization: Team USA goes a legit 12 men deep. Easily. I would feel just as comfortable with Paul, Redd, Tayshaun, Bosh, and Boozer (the last 5 men) as I would with Kidd (?), Kobe, Wade, Lebron, and Howard (the first 5 men). And they play well together. Coach K is not an X's and O's kind of guy at the level of Mike D'Antoni (his assistant) or Greg Popovich (the other candidate for head coach). What he is a genius at is getting players prepared to embrace their roles in and to embrace them in a disciplined, smart way. Guess what? Coach K got Kobe to accept *not* being the centerpiece of the offense, and made him care about defense (side note: when Kobe actually cares about playing defense, he's a sickeningly good one-on-one guy, and reminds me a little of MJ. Except MJ was better) Coach K got Chris Paul and Deron Williams to be comfortable with coming off the bench to spark the offense; Coach K got Carmelo to play up to his *nasty* potential as a FIBA swingman with LeBron (most wings are too small and most forwards are too slow to keep up with those two). And he did it while working under the crushing assumption that if he wins, it's because "he had the best players" (true, but not the whole truth) whereas if he loses, it's because of "bad coaching" (completely untrue).

Watch K's Duke teams, the really dominant ones from the early '90s. Watch K's Olympic team now. Then cringe in memory of a bronze-medal winning team that had Stephon Marbury (!) in its starting backcourt.

What does this mean? It means the same thing everyone else has been saying: Team USA is a favorite. But not a jugernaught.

Yes, Team USA performed well under potential at the 2006 world championships in Athens, eventually taking third place after a humbling loss to Greece (damn pick-and-roll). But imagine this: now the players have two more years of experience in FIBA-style rules (different levels of acceptable contact for fouls, really strange goaltending rules, and a larger key, mainly), a much higher level of motivation (this is the real thing, and the medal rounds are stressful one-and-dones, similar to March Madness...which Coach K owns a 66-18 record in) and senior leadership under Kobe (on defense) and (supposedly) Kidd. So what's down the road for the US?

Greece, with its disciplined, massive players, will slow the game down and try to make Team USA play a lot of methodical, half-court basketball, which is exactly what every team should be doing. Pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop will slowly wear away at US defense; tight, well-executed zone defense will make the US pay dearly for every shot. The question: can they minimize the numbers of turnovers from their ballhandlers, and prevent the US from shooting well from the outside? It's an iffy question, and I'd give the US team 50-50 odds.

Spain/Argentina both will play a more uptempo style; Spain, in particular will try to beat the US at their own game with man-to-man defense and quick, NBA-style outside-inside offense. We have the athleticism edge; Spain has size and experience and (possibly) a little "extra help" from the refs, depending on how much they hate us this year. (Recall, Tim Duncan refused to go Olympic again because of shoddy treatment from the refs). Argentina will try to mix-and-match the two styles, and has an NBA-quality roster to do so. Again, I'd give them roughly the same odds: 50-50 against Spain and maybe a little less against Argentina, who has Manu Ginobli, who terrifies me.

So, take heart, and take heed: brighter days are ahead! Win or lose, this edition of Team USA won't embarrass it's homeland.

PS: And yes, I still think a college team would be better, both for the image of American basketball (our Joes can beat your Pros) and because it would be hellaciously fun to watch. Imagine this starting lineup:

PG: Derrick Rose (Memphis)
SG: Stephen Curry (Davidson)/Jon Diebler (OSU, because I watched him in high school and am deeply afraid of him)
SF: Michael Beasley (Kansas St.)/Billy Walker (Kansas St...maybe graduated?)
PF: Kevin Love (UCLA)/Kyle Singler (Duke)/James Mays (Clemson)
C: Tyler Hansblahbah (UNC, but only because patriotism demands it...also it's easier to be a short center in international ball)

On the bench: OJ Mayo, because he's an idiot and it would be great to have him humbled.

I can just see the Greek coach pulling his hair out trying to stop little Stephen Curry :)

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